He was a Texan, a Green Beret, a Medal of Honor recipient and mentor to the young. Heck, they even made a GI Joe action figure in his image.
However, nothing could ever adequately describe or honor the legend that was Roy Benavidez.
The son of a Mexican-American father and Native mother, Benavidez was born in August of 1935 in DeWitt County, Texas. Losing both parents by the age of seven and dropping out of school by 15 to support his family, Benavidez was no stranger to sacrifice and hard work.
In 1952, Benavidez joined the Texas Army National Guard at the age of 17. Three years later, he transferred to active duty and found himself with the 82nd Airborne Division. While stationed at Fort Bragg, he became interested in a relatively new organization- the Special Forces.
After completing his Special Forces training, Benavidez was assigned to the legendary 5th Special Forces Group, with whom he was deployed to Vietnam as an advisor in 1965.
During his first tour, Benavidez stepped on a landmine. Paralyzed from the waist down, the young Green Beret was quickly evacuated to the Philippines before being transferred back to the United States. While recovering in Fort Sam Houston, TX, Benavidez was informed by the medical staff that his injuries would likely prevent him from walking again and that he was to be retired from military service. In a 1991 speech, Benavidez described his predicament:
“The doctors were initiating my medical discharge papers, but at night I would slip out of bed and crawl to a wall using my elbows and my chin. My back would just be killing me and I’d be crying, but I get to the wall and I set myself against the wall and I’d back myself up against the wall and I’d stand there — like Kaw-Liga, the Indian. I’d stand and move my toes, right and left…every single chance I got — I got. And I wanted to walk — I wanted to go back to Vietnam because of what the news media was saying about us: that our presence was not needed there; they’re burning the flag.”
After over a year in medical custody, Benavidez walked out of the hospital in July 1966 with his wife Hilaria at his side. Despite constant pain from his wounds, he was determined to return to combat in Vietnam, re-deploying to South Vietnam in January 1968.
On May 2 of the same year, a 12-man Special Forces patrol which included nine Montagnard tribesmen, was surrounded by a NVA infantry battalion of about 1,000 men. Hearing the cry for help over the radio, Benavidez boarded a helicopter to respond. Despite being told that they weren’t cleared for landing, the crew swooped in to recover the men below, losing their gunner in the process. Eventually, the helicopter would be shot down, killing all aboard.
Armed only with a knife, Benavidez jumped from the helicopter carrying his medical bag and ran to help the trapped patrol. According to his citation Benavidez “distinguished himself by a series of daring and extremely valorous actions… and because of his gallant choice to join voluntarily his comrades who were in critical straits, to expose himself constantly to withering enemy fire, and his refusal to be stopped despite numerous severe wounds, saved the lives of at least eight men.”
What his citation did not mention was the brutality of the hand-to-hand combat he was engaged in. “I was hit in the mouth with the butt of a weapon,” he said in 1991. “My jaws were locked. After my last return back to the helicopter when I was boarded on, I was holding my intestines in my hand.” As the helicopter lifted off, blood streamed out both sides of the doorways.
Evacuated to the base camp, examined, and thought to be dead. As he was mistakenly placed in a body bag among dead prisoners recovered for intel, he was suddenly recognized by a friend who called for help. Though doctors came to examine him, they thought he had succumbed to his wounds. The doctor was about to zip up the body bag when Benavidez managed to spit in his face, sending a clear sign to the doctors that he was alive. All said and done, Benavidez had a total of 37 separate bullet, bayonet, and shrapnel wounds from the six hour fight with the enemy battalion.
Brought back to the States, Benavidez recovered at Brooke Army Medical Center, receiving a Distinguished Service Cross and four Purple Hearts for his actions.
It was not until 1973 that he was put in for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, several complications and technicalities -not the mention the then-assumed lack of living witnesses to the event- prevented him from getting the medal. Suddenly, a witness who was previously assumed to be dead stepped forward in 1980, confirming the accounts of the previous debriefings.
On February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented Roy P. Benavidez with the Medal of Honor. Following the reading of the citation, Reagan turned to the press and said, “If the story of his heroism were a movie script, you would not believe it.”
After his retirement, Benavidez dedicated the rest of his life to helping others, be it motivational speaking, fighting for veteran benefits or encouraging kids to pursue a good education. He returned to his hometown with his wife and three children, publishing three books and living a relatively peaceful life.
Master Sergeant Roy Benavidez died of diabetes-related complications on November 29, 1998, at the age of 63 at Brooke Army Medical Center. He was buried with full military honors and can be visited at the Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.
Roy Benavidez was more than a man, he was an icon- a testament to the qualities of perseverance, courage and the bonds forged between brothers in combat. Though he has left this mortal realm, his legend is immortal.
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